Photo: Pose (FX)

As its title suggests, Pose’s second episode revolves around access. Who has access to safe sex education? Who has access to safe spaces? Who has access to visible gay spaces? Who has access to wealth, jobs, self-worth? And by focusing not only on a marginalized group in a society but the group that is marginalized within that group, Pose goes deeper than any other television show in history into the fractures and power dynamics within the LGBTQ community, telling stories that demand to be told from perspectives often ignored by mainstream pop culture.

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In “Access,” Damon meets Ricky, a handsome and charming boy who flirts with him almost immediately. Damon’s shyness and idea of romance (he wants Ricky to take him out on a proper date) are immediately endearing. Throughout the episode, it becomes clear just how stunted Damon in his romantic life. Because he had to suppress his queerness and because his father only gave him a heteronormative—and incomplete—sex talk, he hasn’t had a chance to act on desire, to learn about what he wants and explore his body and sexuality. For a lot of queer people, our sexual awakenings come later.

Damon hasn’t had access to romance, and being thrown into a date with Ricky excites but also overwhelms him. He has never even kissed someone before, and when he tells Ricky that, Ricky swoops him into a romantic dance in the middle of the abandoned warehouse they’re in, kisses him gently. It’s so tender and sweet. But when Ricky pushes for more, Damon stops things. He isn’t ready, he confesses earnestly.

He arrives home past his 3 a.m. curfew, and mother Blanca is pissed. Blanca’s tough love attitude has been such a strong, well developed part of this character, and MJ Rodriguez has already been serving awards-worthy performances in these first two episodes with her adept ability to balance soft and hard, drama and comedy, vulnerability and strength. Blanca makes it clear to Damon that she’s mad because she cares; she wants him to be safe. She grills him about his date with Ricky, asking if he did any drugs. She also asks him outright if he had sex. Damon’s earnestness and curiosity here is, again, extremely endearing. The cute Damon moments abound in this episode.

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The resulting sex talk Blanca gives Damon is groundbreaking. Queer-centric sex education is incredibly rare in the U.S. It’s rare on TV, too. And even though this talk doesn’t go into everything, it’s significance can’t be overstated. It’s conceivable that a young queer person could watch this episode and have it be their first inkling of a sex talk that speaks to them or at least their first exposure to the normalization of queer sex. That’s huge.

As it turns out, Ricky isn’t quite as smooth and confident as the front he puts up suggests. Compared to Damon, he seems like someone who is more comfortable acting on queer desire. He even knows where it is and is not safe for them to kiss. But he still carries shame and insecurities. When Damon stands him up to go to the ballet, he’s crushed. He doesn’t feel worthy of being accepted into a house, explaining to Damon that he lives on the street because he doesn’t feel welcome anywhere else. Even Ricky, who appears confident and sure of himself in so many ways, experiences the loneliness and rejection that comes with being a queer black man in the world he lives in. Ricky and Damon eventually escape that world for a brief moment at the ballet, and it’s a beautiful moment—a pure encapsulation of the queer joy at the center of this show. Who knows what the future might hold, but strictly speaking within the confines of this episode, they get a happy ending.

About halfway through the episode, we check in with resident straight white tokens Stan and Patty. Kate Mara, at least, gets more lines in here, asking Stan for a dishwasher since he supposedly has this great paying job and they’re part of the NYC elite now. Of course, most of their newly acquired social status is a sham. Stan recklessly spends money so that they can fit in to the life he wants. Patty has a $900 dress so they can go out with his coworkers and look like they belong, but they can’t afford a dishwasher. They’re living above their means, because that’s what Stan thinks success looks like.

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Pose is very much a show about belonging, about finding your community, and Stan’s arc shows a very different, more insidious version of that. Damon, Blanca, Ricky, and Angel are all searching for a sense of belonging in order to survive. Stan wants to belong for the power. The show is working a little too hard to make him somewhat likable, but there’s nothing sweet about his possessive nature with Angel. The sense of self-worth she gets from him seeing her as a woman and referring to her as such is definitely moving and complex. But it doesn’t make him a hero.

I’ve saved the best for last, which is Blanca’s arc in the episode. Eager to celebrate her win against Elektra at the ball, she invites one of her former house sisters to have a drink at one of the city’s top gay bars. But the definition of gay bar in this case is very limited. This bar is a place for gay, mostly white men. And they see Blanca and other trans women as intruders or worse. They don’t want her there, and they let her know it, and they’re just as violent as transphobic cishet men. Blanca fearlessly pushes back, demanding a world in which she can sit at the gay bar and have a Manhattan. If she doesn’t even have access to a gay bar, then where is safe for her? She wants a better world for her children—another striking example of just how good of a mother figure she is—and she’s willing to fight for it. The men’s reactions to her are particularly disgusting because they appear to frame it as if this is just the way things should be. Transphobia is as embedded in these gay men as it is in the homophobic world that oppresses them. Their privilege and sense of power tops their empathy.

It’s especially devastating within the context of current times, because Blanca’s fight is one that still very much waging on within the LGBTQ community, where transphobia and misogyny and racism and the intersection of all three remain huge problems. It’s moving to watch her fight so hard, but it’s also disheartening to think about how hard people are still fighting for the same thing.

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Pose sharply celebrates queerness at the same time as critiquing mainstream gay movements and spaces. It’s this nuance and inclusiveness that elevates the show into something groundbreaking and penetrating. And the characters still come first, making the show more than its messages. Because of the strong character development and storytelling, Pose doesn’t feel like it’s just a message vehicle. But the messages it does send are important, and it sends them with style and depth.


Stray observations

  • I have a feeling all of my reviews for this show are going to run long, but if Ryan Murphy is going to insist upon making over-an-hour-long episodes of television, that’s just the way it’s gonna be!
  • On that note, I’m very excited for next week’s episode, which is written by Janet Mock and Our Lady J.
  • Best Lewk: Okay not that she needs anyone to tell her how fabulous she is, but I am living for Elektra’s frilltastic dress in the opening ball sequence.
  • Best Shade: As much as I wanna give this one to the fire-tongued Elektra again, I want to acknowledge that Blanca has been holding her own up against her. “Now, the only house I’m worried about at the moment is the International House Of Pancakes, where we will celebrate and raise a fork of the rooty tooty fresh n’ fruity to your inevitable demise.” Love a diss that incorporates pancakes.
  • Shoutout to Cubbyhole, a bar that still very much exists! I could tell you a few personal stories about Cubbyhole, but this probably isn’t the place.
  • It is so mesmerizing to watch Ryan Jamaal Swain dance. He emanates emotion in every movement.

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